Yitro's Visit – Its Purpose and Significance

Exegetical Approaches

Overview

In 18:1, Yitro is introduced as both "כֹהֵן מִדְיָן" and "חֹתֵן מֹשֶׁה". The two hats which Yitro wears present him as both a public and private figure, and generate different possible reasons for his visit. R"Y Bekhor Shor takes the familial approach, according to which Yitro had altruistic motivations and was simply trying to return Zipporah and her sons to Moshe.  In contrast, most Rabbinic sources understand Yitro to be embarking on a spiritual odyssey in which embraces monotheism.  Finally, modern commentators such as R. D"Z Hoffmann and Cassuto view Yitro's journey from a realpolitik perspective, and suggest that he was engaging in diplomacy with his new neighbors.

Family Reunification

"אֲנִי חֹתֶנְךָ יִתְרוֹ בָּא אֵלֶיךָ" – R"Y Bekhor Shor explains that these words in verse 6 are not what Yitro said when he arrived, but rather refer to a promise Yitro had made in the past when Moshe originally separated from his wife.  At that point, Yitro assured Moshe that as soon as Moshe completed his mission of taking the Children of Israel out of Egypt, Yitro would bring Moshe's family to wherever they were camped. Thus, as soon as Yitro hears "how Hashem had brought Israel out of Egypt," he comes to fulfill his pledge.2
"אַחַר שִׁלּוּחֶיהָ" – Seforno understands these words to mean "after her sending of messengers," i.e. Zipporah's sending of messengers to Moshe to find out where he was encamped.3 According to this approach, Zipporah is actively seeking to reunite with Moshe, and Yitro is attempting to assist her.4
Emphasis on family – The highlighting of family related details in 18:1-12 supports this position. Yitro is referred to as choten Moshe or simply choten eight times in this section, suggesting that he is coming mainly in that role. Additionally, the text discusses the coming of Yitro, Zipporah, and her two sons three times within the five verses of 18:2-6.5 On the other hand, the Torah tells us absolutely nothing regarding the actual reunion of Moshe with Zipporah and his sons, not even that they greeted each other.
Significance of the story – This approach leaves one wondering why this reunion was noteworthy enough to share, given that Moshe's family is never heard from again in the Torah.
Timing – See Chronology for the range of opinions as to when Yitro arrived. According to this position, Yitro presumably came already in the first year, as it is unlikely that he would have wanted to wait until the second year to reunite the family.
What Yitro hears in 18:1,8 and his recognition of Hashem in 18:11 – This view could distinguish between the news of the Exodus which Yitro hears in 18:1 and the additional information that he receives from Moshe in 18:8. The former is what prompted the visit, as now that Moshe was safe, Yitro could reunite him with Zipporah and his sons. In contrast, the latter report which he hears firsthand from Moshe may have inspired him to convert and bring sacrifices (see Seforno 18:12),6 but was not responsible for the visit itself. This distinction may lie at the root of Rashbam's interpretation of 18:1,10 (see Two Accounts), and is most fully developed by R. Elhanan Samet.7
Yitro's departure – Once Yitro had reunited Zipporah with Moshe, he had realized his objective and could return to his own land. See Seforno 18:27 that only Yitro's descendants, but not Yitro himself, accompanied the nation to the land of Israel.

Conversion

Mount Sinai – 18:5 tells us that Yitro came to "God's mountain."10 Minchah Belulah explains that Yitro came to participate in the revelation at Mount Sinai. According to him, Yitro also brought his own wife and children to share in the experience, and it is they to whom "and his children and wife" in verse 5 refers – see Who Accompanied Yitro.11 Netziv in Ha'amek Davar 18:5 similarly suggests that Yitro came to Mount Sinai because he had heard from Moshe that the special spiritual qualities of the mountain were helpful for attaining Divine inspiration.
Timing – See Chronology for the range of opinions as to when Yitro arrived. Shemot Rabbah 27:6 and Midrash Shemuel 12 link Yitro to Amalek and explain that he decided to convert when he saw that his side had been defeated in battle.12 Ramban 18:12 (developing the position of R"E HaModai in the Mekhilta) notes an alternative possibility that Yitro converted only after the revelation at Sinai, and after he had been with the nation for some time.
What Yitro hears in 18:1,8 and his recognition of Hashem in 18:11 – According to this position, the two reports are connected, and Yitro's desire to convert begins already upon hearing the initial news, and only intensifies when he hears further details from Moshe. See Two Accounts.
Yitro's sacrifices – Ramban 18:12 suggests that these were to fulfill the halakhic obligation of a proselyte to bring a burnt offering upon conversion, and that the feast celebrated Yitro's conversion. However, see U. Cassuto who notes that the verse's use of the generic elohim, rather than Hashem, would be surprising if Yitro was converting to Judaism (see also Yitro's Religious Identity and Yitro's Sacrifices).
Yitro's departure and return – If Yitro came to convert, why would he then take leave of the Children of Israel? R"E HaModai in Mekhilta DeRabbi Yishmael Yitro Amalek 2 posits that Yitro left only temporarily to convert the rest of his family (see also Targum Yerushalmi (Yonatan) and Rashi 18:27). He then returned in the second year, and he and his descendants remained with the Children of Israel. Ramban 18:1 also adopts this position.
Significance of the story – The story of Yitro becomes a prototype for Gentiles recognizing Hashem and converting to Judaism. The chapter may also serve as background for understanding the relationship between the Children of Israel and Yitro's descendants which resurfaces in subsequent books of Tanakh.
Yitro's Religious Identity – This position would likely maintain that Yitro was still a heathen when Moshe met and married Zipporah.  For more on the implications of this and a full range of other options, see Yitro – Religious Identity.13

Diplomatic Mission

Timing – Cassuto portrays Yitro as a leader of the Midianites coming to express recognition and admiration to the new people which had just emerged from slavery and joined the league of nations.14 Cassuto's reading may reveal influence of the events of his own time. He wrote his commentary shortly after the establishment of the modern State of Israel, and Yitro's arrival likely symbolized for him the realization of Israel's quest for recognition from surrounding nations.15
Yitro's recognition of Hashem in 18:9-11 – As leader of his foreign delegation, Yitro may be simply paying homage to his host nation's god. Cassuto 18:12 says that Yitro neither converted nor abandoned his polytheism. According to this, his visit may be a paradigm of an interfaith encounter.16  See also Yitro – Religious Identity for further discussion of Yitro's beliefs.
Yitro's sacrifices and the festive meal – R. D"Z Hoffmann Shemot 18:12 suggests that the sacrifice and meal are not part of a religious ritual, but rather a political ceremony which accompanied the signing of a covenant between the nations of Israel and Midyan. He thereby explains why the generic elohim is used, rather than Hashem (the name usually found with regard to sacrifices), as this was neither a religious rite, nor was Yitro converting to monotheism.17 He also notes that treaties were often sealed by a meal, as evidenced by the alliance made between Lavan and Yaakov. In an article in BASOR 175 (1964), Charles F. Fensham brings additional Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern examples of this custom – see Eating Bread Lifnei HaElohim for elaboration.
Yitro's departure – His diplomatic mission accomplished, Yitro could now return to his country.
Moshe and Yitro in Shemot 2 – See M. Weinfeld,18 who suggests that the foundations for this covenant were laid already in Shemot 2 when Moshe found refuge in Yitro's home. He points to numerous parallels between this story and those of Yaakov and Lavan, Hadad the Edomite in Melakhim I 11:14-22 and the ancient Egyptian tale of Sinuhe. See In-laws for further discussion.
Israel and its neighbors – The Midianites, like the other tribes and nations in their region, needed to adjust to the reality of a new Israelite nation in their midst. While most of these peoples as well as some of the Midianites themselves (see Bemidbar 22-25,31) displayed hostility toward the Children of Israel, Yitro may have represented a group of Midianites who opted for a peaceful approach (Cf. Devarim 2:29). For the location of Midyan and the relationship between these two stories, see Midyan.
Keinites in Shofteim and Samuel I – In his aforementioned article, Fensham also adduces evidence for the existence of a treaty between the Israelites and Yitro's Keinite clan from the stories of Israel's battles with the Canaanites in Shofteim 4 and Amalek in Samuel I 15:6.19 In the former, he suggests that Yael the Keinite's impaling of Sisera can be readily understood in the context of the treaty between the Israelites and the Keinites. In the latter, he posits that the term "chesed" should be rendered as "covenant" (see chesed), and that Shaul is asking the Keinites to withdraw from amidst the Amalekites because of their pre-existing treaty with the Children of Israel.20
Parallel to Shelomo's treaty with Hiram – Y. Avishur21 notes that postulating a treaty between Moshe and Yitro fits well within the broader array of parallels between the Moshe-Yitro and Shelomo-Hiram stories – see Encounters with Foreign Leaders for elaboration.
Significance of the story – Cassuto views the Yitro story as a preamble for Hashem's selection of the Children of Israel to be his chosen nation. The chapter may also serve as background for understanding the relationship between the Israelites and Yitro's descendants which resurfaces in subsequent books of Tanakh.
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